I've been immersed in Shakespeare's King Lear, but not solely as a text on a page. I'm acting in a production of the play here in New York City, playing the King of France and the Servant who stands up to Cornwall in the famous eye-gouging scene.
Our production, set in the wintry twilight of Imperial Russia, features a female Lear, who recalls not only Catherine the Great but also some of Shakespeare's own ferocious female rulers like Queen Margaret. The power of the text is preserved, and particular themes strike the ear anew, as in Lear's excruciating curse on Goneril’s womb: “Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear!/ Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend/ To make this creature fruitful!/ Into her womb convey sterility!” This is hard to hear in any production of Lear, but when Lear is Goneril’s mother it makes me think more of the family tree Lear is stunting by cursing away her potential grandchildren.
As it happens, I also stumbled across this piece by First Things blogger Peter Leithart on Lear's moral universe, in which he makes the case that Lear is not an absurd tragedy, but a drama of sin, justice, and grace in a broken world. It's a compelling reading. If you're in New York, why not come see our production and judge for yourself?
The show runs this weekend and next (7 pm Thursday-Saturday, plus 2 pm matinees on Saturday) at the John DeSotelle Studio. It's a co-production of What Dreams May Co. and Queens Shakespeare. Tickets are available here. Use the code “France” when you get your tickets to cast some tribute at my feet. (Full disclosure: I get a cut of your ticket price for referring you to the show—but my recommendation is genuine, not mercenary. It's a production not to be missed!)
After finishing the first installment of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography, The Path to Power, I decided to pick up a copy of Caro’s first book, The Power Broker, a biography of notorious New York city planner Robert Moses.
It opens with an anecdote drawn from Moses’ days as the second-best freestyler on the Yale swim team. Determined to scrounge up funds for the renovation of Yale’s dilapidated aquatics complex, Moses first created a “Minor Sports Association” to pool the resources of athletic programs left strapped for cash by the football-obsessed administration. But then, realizing there was still not enough money for the pool, Moses tried a little sleight of hand. He could continue soliciting donations for the swim team alone, he told team captain Ed Richards, without notifying donors that their contributions were now shared with several other programs. When Richards objected, Moses snapped:
With astonishing rapidity, the face over the high collar turned pale, almost white. Moses' fists came up for a moment before he lowered them. “Well, you've got nothing to say about it,” he said.
“Yes, I do,” Richards said. “I'm the captain. I'm responsible. And I'm telling you not to do it.”
“Well, I'm going to do it anyway,” Moses said.
“If you do,” Richards said, “I'll go to [the donor] and tell him that the money isn't going where he thinks it is.”
Moses' voice suddenly dropped. His tone was threatening. “If you don't let me do it,“ he said, “I'm going to resign from the team.”
He thought he was bluffing me, Richards would recall later. He thought I wouldn't let him resign. “Well, Bob,” Richards said, “your resignation is accepted.”
Bob Moses turned and walked out of the pool. He never swam for Yale again.
In The Path to Power, Caro tells a similar story about Johnson’s childhood in the penniless Texas Hill Country. Johnson was often the only boy in his neighborhood with a real baseball, and even though his classmates knew that he “threw ... like a girl,” he liked to pitch. So Johnson gave his peers a choice: they could let him pitch, or he could take his ball and go home. The only difference with Moses is, Johnson never had to go home.
For Caro, the inner hunger of men like Moses and Johnson—who knew how to get power and keep it, even at a very young age—makes them almost inhuman. Both were absolutely relentless, boundlessly driven by their ambition, so that every human interaction, every waking moment, became an opportunity to extend and secure their interests. Fortune, they believed, could not harm them so long as they kept up their guard. As Johnson’s high school debate students recalled decades later,
[Johnson’s] attitude was [that] ... everything must be taken care of, and of course [you] must win. But the thing was: if you took care of all the minor details, you would win. If you stayed up late, if you did just absolutely everything you could do—well, from it would grow everything. The world’s going to be open.
Caro is famously resistant to speculation about the theoretical underpinnings of his work. But in Episode 6 of director Ric Burns’ New York: A Documentary Film (all 17 1/2 hours of which I highly recommend), Caro is drawn into reflection on Robert Moses’ life and times, and he turns the Johnsonian mantra—“do absolutely everything”—into a philosophy of history:
Of course there are great historical forces which make things the way they are, and to an extent every individual is subject to them. But there are some individuals who ride the crest of social forces, and turn them in their direction. Moses was that kind of a person, because of his personality, the scope of his vision, his energy and ... intensity of purpose, [and his] savage will.
I have recently been reading the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She entered the poetic scene at age nineteen with “Renascence,” and it won the Pulitzer prize 1923. Millay was the new 20th Century woman, a hostess at the heart of 1920’s Greenwich village’s Bohemian milieu, and her poetry mocks all things responsible, from faithfulness in love to sensible bedtimes. “Cut if you will, with Sleep's dull knife, / Each day to half its length, my friend,— / The years that Time takes off my life / He'll take from off the other end!” retorts the quatrain “Midnight Oil.”
But, while she would not promise faithfulness to any lover, she remained remarkably loyal to old poetic forms. Her sonnets, gems of craftsmanship, marry modern sentiment to formal integrity: “I shall forget you presently, my dear,” begins one. Another: “ Loving you less than life, a little less / Than bitter-sweet upon a broken wall / Or bush-wood smoke in autumn, I confess / I cannot swear I love you not at all.”
Her poems are melodic songs, not typographical conceits. In her own readings she emphasizes the meter in an almost sing-song, seeming to hearken back to the days of oral poetry. (As Yeats once said, “It gave me the devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems that I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.”) The are meant to be read aloud, recited. Her phrases and rhymes need not be memorized, they refuse to remain on the page and stick in the mind of their own accord.
I recently walked past Millay’s West Village home, which, at only 9.5 feet wide, is the narrowest building in Manhattan. It is easy to miss. But still very much there.